Cover Story: Profiling Pet Partners of Southern Arizona

Profiling Pet Partners of Southern Arizona

Story by Claire Sheridan, Photos courtesy Pet Partners of Southern Arizona

Pet Partners of Southern Arizona is the local chapter of the national organization, headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Locally, members volunteer in the greater Tucson area, providing animal assisted intervention (AAI), activity (AAA) and therapy (AAT). The organization links human-animal teams with facilities in need of services. Additionally, Pet Partners provides mentoring and support to their teams. The group provides education to others about the benefits of therapy animals, as well as promoting the benefits of human/animal interactions.

Among the many facilities Pet Partner teams service are schools, hospitals, crisis centers, behavioral health centers, memory care, assisted living, law enforcement, correctional facilities, library reading programs, at-risk youth programs, hospice, University of Arizona, Pima Community College and Davis-Monthan Airforce Base.

For a better idea of the work these amazing volunteers do, here are profiles of six very different teams:

Kari Cleland handles Loki, a 5-year-old Great Pyrenees. They have been with Pet Partners for over 3 years. Cleland said, “From the moment I got him at 8 weeks, I knew Loki was a special boy. When Loki was about 6 months old, I noticed that he would go over to someone and place his head on the person’s lap. Each time, just before he did this, that person had been about to have a panic attack or was struggling with anxiety. He made people feel better. That’s when I knew that Loki would not only make a great service dog, but also a therapy dog.”

Loki serves as a therapy dog at Tortolita Middle School in Marana. There he works directly with kids who can use some extra help, either one-on-one or in small groups.

Cleland also said, “It is amazing to watch him interact with everyone, from doing tricks like turning lights off or handing them a Kleenex, to laying down on the floor so someone who is having a hard time can snuggle up to him. His gentle nature and caring spirit has brought many tears to my eyes and others. The most rewarding part of our weekly visits is to hear from the counselors that kids who would not open up to them in the past are now interacting with the staff.”

Tuffy is a nine-year-old Catahoula. She and Whitney Price have been a registered Pet Partner team for over two years. They visit the Pima Re-Entry Center, where they work with prison inmates who are being reintegrated into the community after serving their sentences. The team typically visits once per week.

Price said, “While I have had a number of meaningful experiences at the Re-Entry Center, my favorite moments are probably those where an offender sits down, reaches out toward Tuffy, and she licks his hand. He’ll smile a little and say something like, “I haven’t touched a dog in 10 years.” I smile a little then, because we were able to help give them a positive experience.”

Scout, the two-year-old Yellow Lab and his person, Rich Gillespie, are relative newcomers to Pet Partners. They have been with Pet Partners since October 2017.

Gillespie said, “Scout and I have been visiting Nanini Library in Tucson. He loves going to the library. On one particular visit a lady told me her daughter had not spoken for days. The girl sat down on the carpet with Scout and twice attempted to read, but she just couldn’t. Scout seemed to sense something and began to interact with the little girl. On the third attempt she began to read aloud. After she finished the book, the mom began to cry, thanked me profusely, and patted Scout on the head. Scout gave the Mom and the girl one of his bookmarks with his picture on it.”

Of Team Teri Pursch and Sophie, Pursch said, “On a hot August day in Tucson I went to Pima Animal Care Center looking for a small dog. I was surprised by how many dogs the facility held and the variety available. I saw a very small Chihuahua in a pen with a number of other small dogs that had all been brought in recently. She was cowering in a corner. As I reached through the chain-link fence to comfort her, she rested her chin on my hand, and looked me in the eye as if to say, ‘Get me out of here please!’

Sophie and I went through training and were evaluated with Pet Partners in July 2014. Now she is almost 5 years old and we have the privilege to visit a Hospice (Peppi’s House) and a Cancer Center (Banner) once a week in Tucson.

One of the more remarkable experiences we have had happened when we were visiting a children’s shelter weekly (Casa de los Ninos). All of the children introduced themselves, and I introduced them to Sophie. She danced around excitedly. One boy did not say his name; when I asked him, he seemed to hunch down his shoulders just a bit. The staff informed me that he had not been speaking since being brought to the shelter. Sophie helped him start to talk again.

One of the activities I have the children do is have Sophie perform a trick for them, at their direction. They give Sophie a treat and say her name. The boy was reluctant to say anything at first, but he did manage to say, “Sophie,” very softly and give her a treat. That started a gentle cascade of verbal interaction with his peers. What a joy it was for me to see him progress. On subsequent visits, he showed marked improvement in verbalization and actively engaged in activities with Sophie and other children. She is the best teammate I could hope for.”

Lori Ginsburg said, “Kojack and I have been a registered Pet Partners team since June 2012. I adopted Kojack in October 2010, on his third birthday. The shelter staff told me that he absolutely loved children and suggested that I look into pet therapy work with him because of his dynamic interactions with children. I knew nothing about therapy animals at the time, but I did my research, and the rest is history!

Kojack and I visit at Banner Children’s – Diamond Children’s Medical Center. We visit the pediatric patients and their families there every other weekend.

One significant experience that comes to mind was when we were visiting with a young patient and her family. Kojack is a medium-sized dog; he typically doesn’t lie on the hospital beds, but in this case, the patient requested that he lay at the foot of the bed with her. She was so excited to have him there with her, and so were her family members. After a few minutes, her medical team came in and stated that they were going to remove her IV. She was very scared about this and asked if Kojack and I would stay in the room with her. As they got ready to remove the IV, she became even more afraid and began to cry. As soon as Kojack heard her start to cry and saw her expression change from joyful to fearful, he became laser focused on trying to console her.

From the moment the patient began crying until the moment the IV had been removed, Kojack crawled closer and closer to her until he could reach her and be right there with her. His immediate response to seeing her in pain and afraid was profound. We’ve all seen our dogs respond to their owners this way, but to see him physically need to be right there holding onto someone he had just met was so moving – even some of her family members gasped and began to cry. Sometimes therapy animals can be seen as a distraction to a patient during these instances, but it’s moving to see them do more than distract and take a lead role in calming the patient’s nerves and providing the type of unconditional, non-verbal support that comes so naturally to our four legged companions.”

Pet Partners would like to increase their number of volunteer teams. The local chapter’s volunteer organizers are always available to answer questions, and to support new teams through every step of the process. One of the lead organizers locally, Diane Alexander, and her dog, Ella, have been doing this work for 7 years in facilities including hospitals, the boys & girls club, crisis center and the prisons. Their experience doing the work gives them background to answer any questions you have, and Alexander’s enthusiasm for the work is so contagious that you will surely want to sign up. If you think that you and your pet would enjoy this type of work, please contact Pet Partners!

To learn more about the work of this amazing group, check out their website: www.PetPartnersSoAZ.org or email them: Info@PetPartnersSoAZ.org
You may also attend their upcoming informational events:

Sept. 15, 2:00-3:00pm, THE CORE at La Encantada: 2905 E Skyline Dr., Suite 277, Tucson 85718
Presented by Mary Atkinson, TMC Wellness Director & Diane Alexander, Pet Partners of Southern Arizona

This mini workshop focuses on building trust with your pet.
Sept. 20, 6:00-7:00pm, HANDI-DOGS Training Center: 75 S. Montego Dr., Tucson 85710
Presented by JoAnn Turnbull and Cindy Mayo, Pet Partners Instructors

Preparation for the Team Evaluation and Beyond
Oct. 2, 6:00-7:00
WARD 3 COUNCIL OFFICE: 1510 E. Grant Rd., Tucson 85719
Presented by JoAnn Turnbull and Cindy Mayo, Pet Partners Instructors



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